Productivity, Focus and Multi-Tasking

“Schwartz argues that it’s up to individuals and managers to avoid the multitasking trap. But I look at it a different way: ultimately, it’s up to institutions to make sure employees are focused. Businesses and government agencies that are serious about improving productivity need to tackle this as an organizational initiative.

With increasing automation in every aspect of organizational work, people tend to be left with tasks that require judgment, thought, and creativity – precisely the kind of tasks that require focused effort and are most hurt by the distractions of multitasking. Moreover, because most work emerges from collective, rather than individual, efforts, the losses caused by multitasking multiply and spread. Here’s how:

  • Multitasking workers keep others waiting for their output. When people do not have everything they need to take a task to completion, they either begin work with incomplete inputs — only to be interrupted later — or they start on new tasks, which reduces focus and the quality of work.
  • When managers multitask, even small decisions can take days. Instead of spending, say, a quality 15 minutes with people, they can afford only a rushed and ineffective two to three minutes.
  • Every task seems equally urgent. As a result, truly critical issues and genuine bottlenecks can’t be identified, and the organization wastes its resources solving the wrong problems.

I would estimate the net loss in productivity at 50% to 75% for an organization, compared with the 25% figure for individuals.

Most importantly: it’s far easier to stop organizational multitasking than to change individual habits. Organizational multitasking happens when people’s day-to-day task priorities are out of sync. People don’t get the inputs and support they need from others in a timely manner, or are constantly pressured to do “more urgent” tasks first. So they stop what they’re working on and start other tasks. Changing individual habits is very difficult, but all that is needed to stop organizational multitasking is a process for synchronizing task-level priorities. With synchronized priorities, people can focus on one task at a time and take it to completion without interruptions.”

Sanjeev Gupta, HBR Blog Network

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2 Responses to Productivity, Focus and Multi-Tasking

  1. Jodi says:

    Hey Pete – Agree totally but HOW? I have never read one of these management essays where they tell you practically how to change the organizations focus to get this done.

    • pbeznoska says:

      Hey Jodi,

      In my opinion, none of these things can be done unless the person at the top of the organization leads it. This type of thing can’t be done when CEOs create cultures where action for action sake is more important than doing things right, with the right amount of focus. However, in most cases, just doing something is the only thing CEOs care about and they reward people who make it look like they are constantly busy, rather than reward the people who actually have the best judgment, or the ability to make the best decisions as stewards of the company, who might be slower or talk less in management meetings. It starts at the top and trickles down. It’s up to the leaders to tell their people that it’s ok to do less every day (and mean it through their actions), if doing less means that the company has a better chance of making the right decision. All of these management consulting articles are aimed directly at CEOs, Boards of Directors and Owners of companies, because without their support for them, there is no way managers down the chain will be able to implement them without sacrificing their job security.

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